The final day of Donald Trump’s odorous presidency has arrived. Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. As Trump’s legacy begins to enter our rearview mirror, many more Americans will wake up to the cynical nature of Trump’s grift, reject his relentless attempts to overturn the results of a legitimate election and condemn his seditious plot against the government itself. It is evident Trump has lost legitimacy as a future political candidate. His failures also may encourage some self-reflection.
“Political Legitimacy” derives from the consent of the governed and gives a leader the authority to lead and a government the authority to function. Given that definition, and recognizing that the low road Trump has traveled these past four years is strewn with almost constant high crimes and misdemeanors, we know the moment when Trump completely and forever lost his political legitimacy.
Personally, that unprecedented – but all too predictable – destination was reached at 9:30 PM on Thursday, January 7, 2021, in Washington, D.C., when Brian D. Sicknick, a veteran US Capitol Police officer who bravely responded to the Trump-incited mob assault, died from brain injuries inflicted by rioters as he tried to protect the Capitol.
This patriot’s blood, and the blood of all those who died or were injured, is on Trump’s hands. But how did we arrive at this tragic crossroads?
In 1999, influential professor and author Walter Russell Mead wrote a seminal piece on American culture entitled, “The Jacksonian Tradition and American Foreign Policy.” Mead identified four powerful undercurrents in the American social, economic and political community, from the “crusading moralism” of Wilsonians and the “supple pacifism of the principled but slippery” Jeffersonians, to the “commercial realism” of the Hamiltonians. But the fourth, and perhaps most important undercurrent, in the political context today, is that reflected by the Jacksonian “folk community.”
Examining the Jacksonian community, Mead found the following:
A frustrated, sometimes paranoid, and conspiratorial nature;
A binary outlook and dismissal of complexity;
A suspicion of elites;
A preference for acting on instinct and emotion rather than evidence;
An exclusionary posture towards foreigners and immigrants;
A skepticism of government structures;
An opposition to taxes and restrictive laws and rules;
And finally, a strong dislike of federal welfare and foreign aid programs.
Mead also observed that Jacksonians view money as a “means for self-discovery and expression.” They tend to favor easy credit to enable the activities of a “daring and entrepreneurial spirit and support policies and programs – particularly mortgage subsidies, Medicare and Social Security – that help them achieve and sustain a middle-class status. Jacksonians so deeply embrace the Second Amendment, over the First, that they have a “love affair with weapons” and are convinced they are standing with like-minded rugged individualists “at the barricades of freedom.”
Trump recognized that this Jacksonian tendency was fertile ground a skilled deceiver could reinforce, manipulate and exploit. He certainly wasn’t the first political aspirant to do so. Former presidents Nixon and Reagan, among others, relied on Jacksonians to propel them into office and support them, even when they erred.
We now recognize that Trump did not anticipate actually winning the presidency. Trump’s original concept was to run as a way of strengthening his own business brand and financial and social status, leveraging the reflected glory of America’s highest office to expand his interests further – both nationally and globally. It seemed like a perversely smart grift at the time. Trump’s carefully crafted personal mythology, narrative skills, and loose association with truth aligned well with Jacksonian outlooks and vulnerabilities.
The tools Trump had were his instincts and a set of deception skills sufficient to be a pretend president, at least for a while. To sustain himself, Trump attempted to add by subtracting, to build by destroying. He told repetitive lies with a straight face, displayed “smarts” by paying little tax, attacked opponents by smearing them, ignored and denied setbacks and failures, and sought outside assistance while denying he was doing so. He also attracted and discarded adherents without empathy, and used television, social media, and personal appearances to disseminate constructed narratives in ways that appealed to “up the establishment” mindsets of Jacksonian Americans.
Trump’s attacks on political opponents as “corrupt,” on the media as “enemies of the people,” and on the government as deeply untrustworthy, resonated with base Jacksonian instincts. (Mental health professionals refer to this behavior as “projection.”) Trump’s steadfast refusal to release his tax returns, payment of hush money to at least one mistress, and use of bizarre logic to create and distribute “alternative facts,” conditioned his receptive targets while earning him their admiration.
Trump was not equipped to lead and manage either day-to-day governance or crises. Over the last four years, Trump demonstrated that he does not have the temperament, judgment, skills, or experience to serve the nation. An accidental president in so many respects, Trump was completely unprepared to be the leader of 330 million people and chief executive of a nation with a vast, dynamic, and complex set of domestic and global challenges. Trump built an empire on a foundation of sand and grew it by intimidation, fraud, manipulation, and threats, inside connections, and lax oversight. In the end, he simply could not fulfill the duties of his office.
The deceptive techniques that won Trump a sufficient number of electoral votes in 2016 sustained him through four downward-spiraling years. His continuing deceptions further polarized, angered, and mobilized Americans, who chose to take his lies, illusions, and delusions for their reality. Trump and his enablers intended it to be just so.
But successful cons often take their grift too far. In Trump’s case, that overreach was his “biggest lie” that the 2020 election was fraudulent. Trump won in 2016 while claiming that the election was fraudulent and rigged. When he lost in 2020, he deployed similar conspiracy theories and baseless lies. It is a testament to his malignant nature and the vulnerability of his targets. The fact that Trump could, against all evidence, incite extreme nativist, white supremacist, anti-semitic and fascist elements to violently riot in January, speaks to the credulousness of a troublingly large subset of the electorate and the malevolent power of weaponized false information.
In doing so, Trump gave proof to Voltaire’s warning that, “Anyone who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” That Trump continues to take satisfaction from the carnage and chaos that has followed underscores how malignant Trump has become. It prompts urgent questions about his motives and influencers.
We now see Capitol Police Officer Sicknick’s murder, and Trump’s attempted sedition, as the predictable outcome of a deeply flawed character willing to commit perverse provocation. By manipulating the prejudices and emotions of a subset of Americans, Trump has thrown an accelerant on forces that may now spin out of his control. His willingness to exploit the extremist potential embedded within portions of the country now is being understood as a clear and present danger.
As Americans awaken to the threat Trump and his enablers pose to our democracy, we can have confidence in most of our elected officials and representatives and the power of their adherence to the Constitution and the rule of law. His appeal to a small slice of Americans caught in the tractor beam of his self-serving disinformation and misinformation is diminishing. Ultimately, our country will demonstrate that it is much stronger than a lone, tragically flawed, cult-like leader. A majority of Americans demand real consequences for all those behind last week’s terrible violence. While Trump has refused to hear the “You’re Fired” expressed by that majority last November, the handwriting is on the wall.
Once the Trump reality show has been taken off the air, the task will be to understand what just happened, prevent further illegal and destabilizing acts, and begin the process of moving forward. We expect America’s law enforcement and judicial system to swiftly and surely bring all of the perpetrators and their facilitators to justice. It might take a while, but that’s to be expected. The Trump “case” – whether or not he avoids incarceration and business failure – will retain some value as an object lesson in transaction, deception, and manipulation.
We grieve as a nation for all those who lost their lives or were injured. We also lament all the damage done to the country’s physical and spiritual structures by this president and his rioter’s actions that day.
But Trump’s post-election insurrectionist plotting has failed. His person and brand now are toxic.
In four turbulent years, Trump has gone from president and head of a major political party to illegitimacy – the lamest of lame ducks. While Trump deceived others, in the end, he deceived himself. Trump now contemplates his precipitous fall from grace. We’ll see what Congress and the courts say, but America has awakened.
Norman Blake is the pen name of a former professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Johns Hopkins University and former professor of national security studies at the National War College/National Defense University. He has almost fifty years in the intelligence profession, most of that in the operational, counterintelligence, and counterespionage arena. The views expressed herein are his own.